There was a time, several years ago, when I lived on the streets. I was “homeless.” Except, according to some people, I wasn’t homeless. I was “unhoused;” or in the reaching-for-extra-credit version, I was one of their “unhoused neighbors.”
That’s … sweet.
Viewing people experiencing homelessness as neighbors is a good and right thing to do, and I would expect nothing less from the City of Brotherly Love. But you know what an even better and more right thing to do is? House them.
The fact is that we could solve homelessness with the right investments in the right policies. It would cost less than one percent of the current $6 billion municipal budget. But I’m starting to think everyone would rather talk about the lingo than admit we are failing to actually help those in need.
Bending over backwards to use the new, correct language with strained phrases like “unhoused neighbors” does not wipe away the immoral stain — our choice to let vulnerable people live outside — from our individual records.
It’s true that words have power, so we should encourage evolution as new information arises at the societal level. I wouldn’t be devoting time to writing about a word change I don’t agree with if it didn’t matter, right?
This change from “homeless” to “unhoused” is insidious though. It normalizes something we shouldn’t be OK with in the first place.
The stigma is not in the word
The thinking goes that some people might consider a cardboard box or encampment home, so it’s wrong of us to imply those homes are lesser than others, like actual apartments or houses. That makes homelessness sound like a quaint lifestyle choice akin to Bikram yoga.
Others argue the word “homeless” is simply so freighted and stigmatized that it’s now a distraction more than an adjective.
If the act of being homeless — of not having a place to live or of sleeping outside or in other places not fit for human habitation due to poverty — is itself so stigmatized we need to evolve language for it, then whatever words we change to are simply going to eventually become stigmatic themselves.
We should feel offended or unsettled when we hear the word “homeless” not because we stigmatize those experiencing it but because we are ashamed at our own moral culpability in its existence and the continued harm it inflicts on the most vulnerable.
Some language changes, like person-first language that centers humanity, make sense, even if it can be clunky to say “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “the homeless.” Noun forms of adjectives do have a way of othering. It’s a good thing that so many people care about destigmatizing issues and prioritizing humanity to where they’d think about this or debate it. But this change to “unhoused” is a solution in search of a problem.
The truly worst argument in favor of ditching “homeless” is that some places unfit for human habitation are considered homes or communities. A home can look very different from person to person, but I think we can all agree that living amongst raw sewage outdoors is, by and large, not the definition of home. You do no one any favors by insisting it is, least of all vulnerable people who ought to have a home indoors with access to a working toilet.
Encampments might foster a sense of community, but this is hardly what makes a home. Shared experiences, even traumatic ones, can unite and create identifiability, trust, and support. This doesn’t mean we should view trauma or misery as a model worth replicating when creating our own communities. We can do better.
And that’s the insidious part. It gives up on the achievable solution at the very start, framing street homelessness as an acceptable alternative to an actual home. It surrenders to the nonsense that homelessness is an intractable, eternal problem by obfuscating it to make it more palatable. “Oh, he’s not homeless, he’s just unhoused.” Glad we cleared that up.
Where does this end?
Here’s the thing: We either have a crisis or we don’t. If we normalize it with supposedly softer language that makes it sound less alarming and more acceptable, then where will we be in 10 or 20 years? Should we stop calling poverty what it is? Disease? Bigotry? Where does this end?
We should feel offended or unsettled when we hear the word homeless not because we stigmatize those experiencing it but because we are ashamed at our own moral culpability in its existence and the continued harm it inflicts on the most vulnerable.
People with severe mental illness, for instance, who are chronically homeless who have few real options currently do not deserve to be left to nature’s cruelty and the capricious generosity of passersby. But that is the sadistic system we’ve consented to.
We make this choice explicit in our voting choices. Locally, this means the mayor who sets the budgetary priorities, and who oversees most municipal agencies in part by appointing their leaders; and City Council, which votes on the specific figures and allocations that go toward those offices and programs.
The fact is that we could solve homelessness with the right investments in the right policies.
The City of Philadelphia spends about $56 million of local tax dollars serving the homeless; it receives an additional $31 million from the federal government and $8 million from the state government. According to the City’s Office of Homeless Services, we could effectively end homelessness with an added investment of about $59 million per year. That includes an inflation-adjusted estimate of the cost of permanent supportive housing, of $15,000 per year for about 3,900 households representing roughly 4,400 Philadelphians who are currently on the street or in shelters, including the chronically homeless.
You could play with the numbers to add in homelessness prevention programs or reduce the figure to focus just on the people literally on the street and not those in shelter. What people who care most object to on a visceral level is the misery of the street. While nowhere near ideal, living in a shelter is a different form of homelessness than living outside, at least according to the federal government.
I know that when I was on the street, I never felt safe enough to sleep restfully which made it impossible to make progress anywhere else. When I was in shelter, I at least could usually get some rest — and I had access to services and facilities critical to human life.
The current fiscal year’s budget for the city is around $6.2 billion. Put another way, City Council doesn’t think effectively ending homelessness is worth less than 1 percent of the current municipal budget. Instead, they would rather grapple with this highly visible, highly charged, highly politicized topic in perpetuity. They’d rather the higher cost of doing nothing continue.
And Mayor Kenney would rather his legacy be one of that guy who gave up on the city and forgot that service to others is where you find true happiness. Because I’m convinced that if he remembered this, and he didn’t give up, then he’d make this happen.
What a legacy it would be to actually end homelessness. It might even get people to forget the Zoom press conferences or that admission he didn’t want to be mayor anymore.
I’m not holding my breath. But I do know one thing: Telling people that we’re supposed to say “unhoused” doesn’t get us any closer to that $59 million being passed by City Council. And it certainly doesn’t get us any closer to bringing our “unhoused neighbors” in off the street. Isn’t that all that matters?
MORE ON HOMELESSNESS IN PHILLY
Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash